Summer Institute

The 2019 Summer Institute Was held August 12-15 at
The Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

The location and dates of the 2020 Summer Institute will be announced in December, 2019.

To receive notification of the announcement please join our mailing list or email for more information.

Our Discovering Community Summer Institute introduces educators to the methods of ethnographic field research and the techniques of documentary media-making and digital storytelling as a means to facilitate meaningful student involvement with the communities in which they live. Working with community resources and digital media tools offers rich opportunities for personalized, student-led learning experiences. This student-directed research model facilitates the development of transferable skills such as clear and effective communication, responsible and involved citizenship, creative and practical problem solving, and informed and integrative thinking.

The Discovering Community model gets students out of the classroom to learn from their diverse communities using media-making tools to document and share their experiences. It supports educators in providing the context for students to achieve required proficiency through real world learning, and holds the potential to promote personal growth by deepening students’ understanding of themselves and others. It can also enhance students’ sense of identification with, and caring for, their home community and help to ensure their future involvement in its civic life.


At a glance

Each day of the four-day Institute focuses on developing a different aspect of the research and documentary process. The daily schedule is built around sessions led by educators, folklorists, digital media specialists, and artists who have done exemplary work as ethnographers, teachers, and documentarians. Each day will begin and end with a peer reflection session facilitated by core faculty mentors. Over the course of the week participants will undertake a mini-field research project and explore the potential of various digital mediums. The Institute culminates with participant presentations of a final documentary piece based on their field research.

Eight additional hours of in-classroom and/or on-site support by VFC staff is included in the Summer Institute tuition. Participants will leave the Institute with a project outline that includes support from VFC visiting educators. A follow-up session for all participants will be held in the fall to share projects and insights.


Day 2: Community-based Research & Media Making

After an initial exploration of the methods and approaches of ethnographic research and its classroom applications, Day 2 invites participants to engage with skilled media specialists for a hands-on exploration of various digital mediums. Media specialists join participants for an immersive exploration of the area in and around St. Johnsbury to conduct community-based research through a practicum of field notes, observation, and the introduction of audio.

Day 1: Collaborative Ethnography & Observation

Day 1 presents an overview of the potential of collaborative ethnography in education. Through a showcase of the Discovering Community model, topics include community-based research, the ethics and skills required to engage personal stories, and how this methodology relates to the development of transferable skills. Participants go out into the community as participant-observer teams to discover the character of everyday life in and around St. Johnsbury.  

Day 3: Immersive Fieldwork & Project Development

Day 3 presents the challenge to create a documentary media piece from start to finish. Applying the methodology and tools introduced in the first two days, media teams break out to pre-selected field sites to develop their own short documentaries and digital stories. The latter half of the afternoon will focus on production techniques, tools, and resources, closing with a faculty-supported work session on individual projects.

Day 4: Digital Storytelling in Classroom & Community

Day 4 begins with a faculty-supported work session to produce a final digital story. Facilitated by VFC staff, the second session of the day is spent brainstorming classroom applications and exploring the development of a community-based project in the participants’ school. The Institute culminates with team presentations of participants’ digital stories, as well as their proposals for how the projects translate to classroom and community.

Full program details

Our long-term goal is to foster a transformative experience for young people that will facilitate personal growth by deepening their understanding of others and, in turn, themselves. At the same time, community-based ethnographic research will promote a young person’s sense of identification with, and caring for, their home community and their future involvement in its civic life.

“To me it is all about having students practice speaking to people, possibly strangers, and practice listening attentively to what these people have to say. Who among us has mastered these skills? One could argue, as adults, we must continue to practice these skills in our professional lives and personal relationships. Subsequently, if we're listening in earnest and asking questions we're genuinely curious about, our projects--products of a shared learning experience--end up being highly collaborative and honor those voices captured on film by students.”

—Steve Rand, Harwood Union educator and long-time Discovering Community collaborator


The Summer Institute faculty and participants will form an ongoing network of like-minded peers who will provide feedback and support for each other’s classroom and program initiatives. Institute faculty and participants will meet again in the fall to share and receive feedback on participants' short documentaries or digital stories based on footage gathered during the Institute. The mentor relationship established during the Institute will continue as teachers return home to flesh out their projects and implement them. As part of the cost of the Institute, participants will receive 8 hours of on-site support from Institute faculty, throughout the school year, to ensure the meaningful implementation of the community-based project.

2019 Faculty


Emily Hilliard, west virginia state folklorist

Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia state folklorist and founding director of the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. She holds an M.A. in folklore from the University of North Carolina, and a B.A. in English and French from the University of Michigan. For over the past 10 years, she has worked with cultural heritage institutions including Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and Maryland Traditions. She is a 2018 recipient of the American Folklife Center’s Parsons Fund Award and 2016 recipient of the Henry Reed Fund Award. Hilliard has been a faculty member of the University of Michigan's New England Literature Program and Marshall University's Graduate Humanities Program. Her writing and media work have been published by NPR, Southern Cultures, Ecotone Magazine, The Southern Foodways Alliance, and West Virginia University Press. She is currently at work on a book based on her folklife fieldwork in West Virginia, under contract with Ohio University Press.

Mary Wesley.jpg

Mary Wesley, Discovering Community educator and Media Producer

Mary studied Anthropology and Philosophy at McGill University, then returned to her native Vermont to work as a field archaeologist for the UVM Consulting Archaeology Program. After falling in love with the New England folk music and dance scene Mary learned to teach and call traditional contra and square dancing (building on the legacy of her grandparents, who were both square dance callers in their hometown of Middlebury, VT). She has taught and performed in schools, community centers, grange halls and at festivals and camps throughout Vermont and across the U.S. and Canada. Mary attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies to learn radio production and Multimedia Storytelling. In collaboration with the Country Dance and Song Society, she helped conceive and manage a community storytelling project, collecting oral histories in traditional dance and music communities around New England. She has worked with other Vermont non-profit organizations including Young Tradition Vermont and the Wake Up to Dying Project to create opportunities for community education and engagement.


Trish Denton, Discovering Community educator

Trish has been committed to the facilitation of community-based projects for 15 years.  With a focus on storytelling and the performing arts, she received a BA in Cultural Studies from Goddard College. Relocating to Burlington, Vermont in 2009, Trish began freelancing as a Teaching Artist, working closely with organizations such as Very Merry Theater, Burlington City Arts, and Vermont Arts Council, to incite dialogue through storytelling and the performing arts. While pursuing an advanced degree at Dartmouth from 2014-2017, Trish was involved with Telling My Story, an applied theater project using storytelling and personal testimony in rehab and correctional facilities. Trish is the founder of In Tandem Arts, an organization that serves as an agency for socially engaged artists, as well as a production company for community-based performance. She has partnered with Community Engagement Lab, Shelburne Farms, Shelburne Museum, 350VT, Vermont Birth Network, Counseling Services of Addison County, The Miller Center for Holocaust Studies, and VSAVT to design innovative programming.


It was an amazing experience. Learned SO much and have so much to think and act on!
— Nancy Maclaran
Ethnography is such a critical component for historians. I wish every social studies teacher could or would take this class.
— Marc Ducharme
The Institute was literally one of the best courses I have ever taken.
— Marie Kittel, Bethel Middle School
This program with its passionate leaders and participants was a profound joining of forces culminating in countless awareness-expanding moments of great richness. Thank you for being so kind, helpful, and sensitive to the awesome potential energies of our group.
— Emerson Gale
It was a really positive experience, and the group was great. We ended up with good bonds and a lot of trust.
— Lidie Robbins, Education Director, Northern Forest Center
Completely worth giving up four precious summer days!
— Carinthia Grayson, Floodbrook Middle School
This course is full of insight on the world through ethnography and all of the information learned is valuable.
— high school student participant
The institute demonstrated how powerful ethnography can be in connecting people to each other and their communities. The principle of letting the truth come out authentically and conducting research without a set agenda is powerful. Ethnography is about connecting with everyday people and discovering the universal themes, issues, and stories that all of us hold. I felt genuinely inspired, personally and professionally.
— Jeff Novak
Discovering Community allowed me to learn, to get excited, and to be vulnerable with my own work as a storyteller. We were given permission to try out new-to-us media, to make mistakes, and to reflect. I never felt lost, or completely out of the loop. I felt supported.
— Katie Wyndorf
This course was challenging in the best ways. It was interesting, moving, and thrilling. The VFC is an amazing resource—and I am not using the term ‘amazing’ lightly but rather in a most sincere way.
— Beverly Kein
We came into this with very specific needs–to learn about ethnography and we wanted the digital piece–and we got it.
— Michele Forman, Middlebury High School – 2001 National Teacher of the Year
Everything I have taken away can (and will) directly and positively impact my practice. From the way I approach lessons, empower students and integrate media—this has been an enriching and rewarding experience.
— Melissa Wyman